So, on this Sunday before Advent we’re presented with this difficult and unpopular passage. The passage is a reasonably well known, if unpopular, one. The gist of the story is that Jesus talks about good things that have been done by people, these he calls sheep and says they will receive eternal reward. The he talks about bad things done by other people, these he calls goats and says they will receive eternal punishment.
This passage has been handled in a number of ways by preachers and theologians. While I mean no personal criticism of the individuals, sometimes the way I’ve heard this passage handled by preachers hasn’t always watertight, to say the least. Let me elaborate: sometimes people read the good bit of the story, miss out the difficult bit, and skip to the eternal reward. This is unsatisfactory because it picks and chooses the parts of scripture that we like, or which say what we want them to say in an allegedly plain manner. Sometimes this passage, like other difficult passages, is missed out completely. There may be times when this is not the right passage to read, but never to read it is unsatisfactory because we cannot avoid difficult parts of scripture for ever. Sometimes people say that because God is love, then, ultimately God will reward and save everyone. That may be true, but without further information or thinking to reach that stage, it leaves us wondering why we should bother to do anything good if everything will be alright in the end, and it also contradicts the apparent message of the passage.
So, how are we to respond to this passage? What are we to make of it?
First, we need to be clear about who precisely are the sheep and who are the goats. I wonder if you’ve ever felt invisible? I’ve often felt invisible. I know that’s hard to believe of someone tall and chunky like me, but trying to get served at the bar in a busy the pub and you’ll soon see what invisible feels like.
One the greatest New Testament scholars Congregationalism produced in the twentieth century, John Marsh, was Principal of Mansfield College Oxford. As a senior Minister, college Principal, and internationally renowned Biblical scholar, you might have expected him to be fairly visible, but when John Marsh came into the room, he could stand very quietly in the corner, and people could go for a very long time without realising he was there.
Well, sometimes we can make people feel invisible: street cleaners, restaurant waitresses, whoever. Often without even realising that we’re doing it. This sort of thing is not right, but it’s largely unintentional, and I don’t think this is what makes a goat.
And this is where I want to distinguish between two different kinds of wrongdoers. This is a dangerous theological minefield, usually only attempted by Roman Catholic theologians, but I want to separate wrongdoing into two categories:
i) There are people who want to do good things, who try to do good things, but who sometimes, perhaps often, fail to do that. These people, who are pretty much all of us, are not goats. Sheep, I’m sure, includes those who want and try to do good at least sometimes, which is most of us. Even though we get things wrong, we are still firmly within the love of God.
ii) The goats are a different category of people altogether. These are those who never have any intention to do anything. People who are 100% selfish 100% of the time. That is, I suggest, a pretty small proportion of people. So, the goats are not everyone who ever does something wrong, because that is everyone. The goats are those who are, in essence, intrinsically evil. The kind of people I’m thinking of are certain kinds of paedophiles, some of the nastier dictators of the world: Hitler, Idi Amin, Milosovic, Mugabe, and so on. People like that. This is a tiny proportion of the population.
Let us be clear who the sheep and the goats are.
Second, how does God respond to these, probably few in number, goats? How do we reconcile the message of the passage suggesting eternal damnation for the goats with our understanding of a God of complete and mercy? The passage tells us that the goats are eternally damned, but our knowledge and understanding of a God of love and grace, which we also know from scripture, contradicts this.
I’m going to tell you a story about a man I knew in another place a long time ago., in my previous church, who had a dream. He dreamed that he was dead, and found himself in heaven, and amongst the many people he saw there, he was very cross to find Hitler. So he went to God and asked why Hitler was there. And God gave him a simple answer: He asked to be forgiven.
Sometimes God can speak to us through dreams, and I think that story shows us how great God’s love is, how God can forgive absolutely anything when people regret it and ask to be forgiven. If you think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is wanting to punish the city, but as he is made aware of the good people within it, he will not punish the bad people if he risks harming the good people in the process, and Abraham continually negotiates a smaller number of good people necessary for God to save the city.
So, the possibility of eternal damnation exists for the goats, but even after death there is always time for repentance and forgiveness. Furthermore, until we get there we won’t know, but there is also the possibility that God’s love is so great that, beyond even what Jesus could explain, tell, and show, that even the goats may be saved. But I don’t think I want to become a goat and take that risk.
If we’re clear who are the sheep and who are the goats, and the extent of the opportunities ever offered to the goats, what shall we do?
What it is that God wants of us, I suggest, is to try to be good and kind people. To pop round with a cup of tea simply because we thought our neighbour looked a bit out of sorts. To call on the elderly person down the road when we’re going shopping just in case they need something. To cut the hedge next door because we know they can’t cope with tools any more. Just tiny actions which say, “I care”, and which are forgotten as quickly as they’re done.
What God doesn’t want is for us to reach out to other people, but then always keeps count. To quote exactly how much we gave to any particular charity down to the last penny, from five years ago. To tell the world that we go shopping for our neighbour every week. To shout from the rooftops when we mend the fence for the old dear down the road. What God isn’t seeking is for us to acknowledge and help people just for the brownie points.
This parable of the sheep and the goats is about the quality of our inner being. It’s about knowing the God within so intimately and responding to him so utterly that our heart just overflows with love. And when that happens we can’t help but respond to the needs of others, and grow increasingly more sensitive to those needs.
And at judgment day, when we stand before the throne of God, we’ll find yourself saying, “Lord, when was it that I saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that I saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that I saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And God will answer, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”